Last night, slightly stir crazy from four days of post-seroplasty languor, I went with the Art Student to a book launch at Gleebooks. The happy hour we spent there makes me realise all over that buying books online (not that I do it that much) strips away a whole wonderfully human dimension of the book-buying experience.
The book was Compassionate Bastard by Peter Mitchell. Upstairs at Gleebooks was crowded with a marvellous combination of family, friends and colleagues of the author, and almost as many again with no personal connection. The launch managed to have an intimate feel and at the same time be the kind of thing that should have been filmed and put up on Slow TV or whatever. [Later addition: Peter Mitchell turned up in the comments to say that all three speeches were videoed, and can be watched on his website.]
Ian McPhee, Minister for Immigration in the Fraser government in the early 1980s, launched the book, and John Menadue, head of the Department of Immigration then and later, spoke. Peter Mitchell, who is a poet in another incarnation, went to work for the Department of Immigration in 1990, getting ‘a real job’. He became Director of the Villawood Detention Centre until he resigned in 2003 – so he was there as the bipartisan agreement on immigration and refugees was torn apart by John w Howard, and the new harsh and inhumane treatment that persists until now was ushered in.
I won’t try to summarise what was said. Enough to tell you that it was incredibly heartening to be in a room with three men who have had close-up experience and responsibility for thinking about policy on refugees and asylum seekers, who are scathing about by the focus group driven debate that dominates the subject these days (they named no names later than Howard, but they didn’t need to), who have been thinking deeply about the subject. They didn’t make huge claims for the book – but they did a great job of selling it to us as a well-written, often funny and sometimes heartbreaking collection of stories that show us the human dimension of Australia’s mandatory detention policy.
Ian McPhee said this book was an excellent companion read to Carina Hoang’s The Boat People and David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book about the Tampa episode Dark Victory. He said that the Greens are the only ones in Federal Parliament who have a credible, humane, practical position on refugees.
Some snippets from John Menadue:
‘Mandatory detention does not deter. It only punishes.’
‘I think we can get back to decency, but we’re a long way from it now.’
‘The decency of Australian people is not shown by opinion polls, but with leadership it will re-emerge.’
John Menadue mentioned (with appropriate apologies, the Centre for Policy Development, which has developed a paper with the self-explanatory title, A New Approach: Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees & Asylum Seekers. There’s a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall on 13 October to discuss this paper.